An Open-Door Policy for Performance Art at FronteraFest

Austin’s innovative and egalitarian gathering keeps its public service mission


Marsha Kendall in "Between Midnight and McMurdo" by Marla Porter, one of this year's shows at FronteraFest's Short Fringe (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

It is often in its absence that the worth of a thing is most appreciated. Take FronteraFest, Austin's celebration of alternative and experimental performance, which went dark for two years due to the pandemic but is back now and more valued than ever. Producer Christina J. Moore recounted, "A lot of people wrote me how they missed having an outlet, having a goal to strive for, having a deadline."

This should have been the 31st FronteraFest, but with those two years of lockdown, Hyde Park Theatre Artistic Director Ken Webster accurately noted that this is the 29th year. After a tentative and masked return in 2023, this fest feels "a little bit more like it's back to normal," he observed, and he should know. He's FronteraFest's truest veteran, being the only person involved every year, either as actor, director, playwright, panelist, or, since 2002 through his HPT position, serving as mein host for the Short Fringe. That role means he withholds submitting a piece, but that doesn't necessarily mean audiences won't spot him on HPT's black box stage. "I'm the emergency fill-in if someone drops out," he said. "I can usually find something to talk about for 25 minutes."

That 25 minutes is the time set aside for every production in the core of this year's FronteraFest, the Short Fringe: a month of microbursts of creativity, five per night, five nights a week, for a whole month. Webster explained, "Every year it's a mix of new performers on the arts scene and people who have been toiling away since dinosaurs walked the Earth."

However, being a veteran doesn't give you a bye into the lineup. Unlike many similar festivals, it is unjuried: There are 80 slots, and they go to the first 80 applicants. Moore credited that initial decision by founder Vicky Boone for making the fringe she crafted with Annie Suite and Jason Phelps both deeply eclectic and truly egalitarian, "to give the stage to people who otherwise might not have a platform for their work, because they can't afford to hire a theatre and technicians."

“To give the stage to people who otherwise might not have a platform for their work.”   – Christina J. Moore

"The only real curation is the scheduling and the show order," Webster said. Each selection is designed to be as diverse as possible: Opening night, for example, includes a Hamlet redux by Alex Garza; "Yer Gonna Die (Just Like Me)," a one-man farce by Zac Carr; multimedia experience "Between Midnight and McMurdo"; an all-female one-act play, "A Family Dinner," from Carlos Lopez Jr.; and "How Michelangelo Saved My Life," a solo show by TV producer and art historian Stephanie Storey. As for the running order, it's often a last-minute decision, made after their tech run-through. "We generally tend to try to end the evening on an upbeat note," Webster noted, either emotionally or creatively.

That lack of a juried selection means that FronteraFest reflects where the state of creativity in the city is right now. Webster noted that there were more deeply personal works this year, while Moore said she felt a rise in one-person performances. On the other hand, dance decreased, as has improv comedy – although Moore noted the return of Best of Fest veteran troupe the Knuckleball Now. At the same time, FronteraFest has changed its scheduling to reflect one of the harsher realities of Austin theatrical life: This year, there's no Long Fringe for full-length performances, as the organizers just could not find a suitable and affordable venue, although Moore is optimistic about its eventual return. "There are some new places on the horizon," she said, "so I'm hopeful one of them will work out in the future for us to have a Long Fringe again."

But that (hopefully) temporary change doesn't affect what Moore called the core "public service" mission of FronteraFest. Webster concluded, "It's really one of the great arts incubators in the city."


How to FronteraFest 2024

This year, Austin's preeminent and unparalleled home to experimental and boundary-pushing performance is centered around the Short Fringe, hosted at the Hyde Park Theatre, running Tuesday through Saturday, Jan. 16 to Feb. 17. Each weekday night will see a selection of short works, each under 25 minutes long, varying from immersive performances built on audience participation, like Jeff Irvin's "Texas Book of Beasts; Year of the Cricket," to absurdist musical comedy from Neil Dorsey and even to Terpsichore, as in Tricia Mitchell's "Motherhood: A Tap Dance."

Each Saturday is a "best of" night, with five shows from the week returning for a second night: four selected by the festival's own panel and a fifth picked by the audience.

This all culminates in the final week (Feb. 13-17) with the Best of the Fest, drawn from all 80 productions. Panelists will pick Block A and Block B from those Best of the Week nights, but don't miss out on Wild Card night, packed with unexpected gems that might have fallen through the cracks.

But not everything takes place at Hyde Park. Get ready for Mi Casa Es Su Teatro on Feb. 10: Curated by Kelly Bland, it's a series of site-specific performances that bring theatre into homes and other unexpected venues around town.


FronteraFest 2024, Jan. 16-Feb. 17. More info and tickets at hydeparktheatre.org.

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